Law is A Buyer's Market: Jordan Furlong talks about his new book
March 24, 201724 March 2017
CBA National sat down with with author and analyst of the global legal market (and former editor-in-chief of this publication) Jordan Furlong to talk about his just released book, Law Is A Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm in which he describes a rebalancing of power in the legal marketplace from sellers towards buyers, and offers some guidance on how law firms can respond to this fundamental shift.
CBA National: What surprised you the most about writing this book?
Jordan Furlong: I suppose one of the positive, unexpected takeaways is that we're not as far behind, collectively speaking, as we might otherwise have expected to be. When I first approached the subject, I proceeded on the assumption that there really weren't very many examples of law firms or organizations that are making strides towards becoming the kind of legal service supplier that the legal market requires. And I'm happy to report that there really are some. The obvious ones that are always mentioned – and they should be. In the U.S. Bryan Cave is a clear leader; Littler Mendelson, which of course now has an office in Toronto; Seyfarth Shaw. Some other firms don't get quite as much attention but are making strides in this direction: Perkins Coie is one of those; Davis Wright Tremaine certainly. Here in Canada, Gowlings usually heads my list of firms that are making real strides in this direction. But McCarthy's is making a serious investment and so is Osler. Among increasingly innovative Canadian firms, there’s Blakes and Torys too. I think the primary value in that for lawyers and law firms is they can say, “look, this can be done and it is being done right now in the market. There's no reason why we can't do it either.” And they can point them out to more skeptical colleagues.
N: So let’s say a firm recognizes that law is now a buyer’s market and is ready to align their innovation strategy, their interests and priorities with those of their clients. Where do you start?
JF: If you are going to bring about a change in your firm, try to start locally and small. Pick a practice group or an industry group, or a particular group of lawyers who are amenable to some kind of change in how things are done, or where the market pressures are the highest. Look at Littler Mendelson. It’s no surprise that it is at the cutting edge of efficient legal practice because it’s a labour and employment firm — a practice area under heavy pressure in terms of pricing and having to modernize. But the common thread I see throughout all firms that have made real strides is leadership that is serious and committed, and practical about getting things done —not just the managing partner, or the executive committee, but practice group leaders, the corner office partners, and the rain-makers. You're never going to get everybody in a firm on one side of a change initiative, but if you get many or even most, then that's pretty much all you need.
N: You write that firms exist to serve the interests of buyers. Is this something law firms struggle to understand?
JF: As I say in the book, law firms are obviously supposed to make money. It's one of the things businesses of all kinds are meant to do. But law firms are not just any kind of business. There's an imperative of professionalism and service to society and community and the courts and the rule of law that undergirds everything we do as lawyers. It's one of the reasons why we've been afforded such extensive protection from market forces through self-regulation for decades, if not centuries. So there has got to be a focus on the client, a focus on the buyer, and fundamentally, a focus on the delivery of service. And the thing of it is, talk to most lawyers in a one on one conversation, they'll say, “of course, absolutely, I believe that entirely.” But get a critical mass of lawyers, and stick them into a business model that drives them constantly to be busy, to generate new business and pump out more hours, and well there's just too much pressure on the business side. And frankly, there are enough lawyers in almost every law firm —certainly mid-size and larger firms — for whom the professional side really is meaningless, right? And they say, “I am here, I go to the highest bidder, end of story. And I will do whatever it takes to maximise the amount of revenue coming in to me, and to maximise the profit that is produced by that revenue.” And sometimes those are the loudest voices at the table. But one of the arguments I make that a commitment to professionalism actually is a competitive advantage in this market when so few law firms make it part of their DNA to prioritise the client interests and delivery of client value.
N: You also argue that firms are overly complacent when it comes to identifying their optimal markets. How so?
JF: The problem is there's a significant degree of inertia in the way law firms operate. Once you find a market that can sustain you and looks to be generating some revenue, you're inclined to stay there, right? Many law firms are probably where they are because those are the markets that their forbearers wandered into 50 or 60 years ago. And maybe they are still really great markets for the firm. But maybe if you stopped and looked around, you'd see that there are many, many people tilling this small patch of earth and maybe getting diminishing returns all the time from what the ground can produce. And maybe it's time to look around and see where else might we work. Where else might we dig and endeavour and make our efforts? Every business of any kind should devote a certain percentage, not a whole lot, maybe 5 or 10 per cent of their time, effort, and energy into what's the next thing? What's over the horizon?
N: So you urge firms to embrace a three-pronged strategy, which has to focus on clients, competition and culture. Which one of those is the most difficult in your view?
JF: Oh, gosh. They're all tough. Probably the culture strategy, because it's the one law firms pay the least attention to. Everybody's got their head around the competitive strategy, to a certain extent, because they’re interested in making money and bringing business. So at least that ground's covered in a lot of firms, though not to the extent it needs to be. Client service is something that every lawyer at least talks about, even if most have difficulty elucidating exactly what they do to render client service in ways that adds value. But at least they're already thinking along those lines. But the idea that a law firm a) has a culture, b) that that culture has an impact on everything the firm does, and c) most importantly, you can actually affect that culture – well that's probably the most foreign idea in most law firms. People become accustomed to the way things are. And nothing really affects their thinking and their feeling and their morale more than the sense of “well, that's just the way things are around here, right?” “It's just, you know, the culture around here. It's all about the partners.” Or “The culture here, it's all about the hours.” It takes a tremendous amount of effort and persistence make a shift away from that. But the great thing about it is if you make it, and succeed at forming an intentional, positive and productive culture, it will pay dividends for decades.